Tuesday, August 30, 2011

1951 National League: The Shot

What if Hank Thompson hadn't struggled in 1951? That was one of the biggest disappointments for the New York Giants in the early part of that season. After watching their third baseman Thompson struggle offensive early in the year, the Giants moved outfielder Bobby Thomson in to the hot corner for the first time since his rookie year, opening the door for the Giants to field youngsters Don Mueller and Willie Mays in the outfield along with veteran Monte Irvin. Things would have been so different if Thompson had just hit.

What if the Giants didn't have so many home games in a row in August and September? Really, it shouldn't have mattered. Entering play on August 12 with a 13-game lead over the second place Giants, the Dodgers should have been able to cruise to the National League pennant that year. And they did cruise down the stretch, ending the year with a 27-24 record that should have been good enough. But then there was the matter of the Giants stretch of home games. Starting with a double header on the 12th, the Giants ripped off a 16-game winning streak, with all but three of the wins coming at the Polo Grounds. Still, though, they had some work to do, entering play on September 22 down by 3 games. Unfazed, they won 7 games in a row to close out the season to put the pressure on the Dodgers.

What if the Giants hadn't put that pressure on the Dodgers? Then maybe Dodgers ace Don Newcombe wouldn't have had to throw a complete-game in his September 29 shutout of the Phillies that kept the Dodgers in a tie. Then maybe they wouldn't have needed to go to Newcombe again the next day, summoning him from the bullpen in the 8th inning in a tie game, a one-inning stint that turned into four as the Phillies and Dodgers played deep into the fading light.

What if Jackie Robinson hadn't been, well Jackie Robinson? After all, it was his overall brilliance that won that deciding game for the Dodgers. His triple in the fifth helped jump-start a rally from 6-1 down; his brilliant catch of a bases-loaded line drive saved Newcombe and the Dodgers in the bottom of the 12th; and his home run leading off the 14th won the game and set up the most famous three games in National League history.

Well, check that. The most famous single game. See, for all the excitement and fame of the pennant race and the ultimate final game, the first two games of the Giants-Dodgers playoff have become largely forgotten. In Game 1, New York's Jim Hearn outdueled Brooklyn's Ralph Branca and the Giants won 3-1 behind a home run by Thomson. The Dodger bats responded in Game 2, with Clem Labine throwing a shutout and the Dodgers winning 10-0.

Game 3 was back in the Polo Grounds because the Dodgers, despite winning the coin toss, chose to play two games on the road. Why? Who knows. But the Dodgers had Newcombe on the mound, and regardless of the stadium and his fatigue down the stretch, they felt like they could win with him. The Giants responded with 23-game winner Sal "The Barber" Maglie.

The Game
With their aces on the mound, both teams must have felt like one run would win the pennant. For the Dodgers, that one run came early, thanks to a first-inning single from Jackie Robinson - who else? - but Brooklyn also left two runners on base that inning. For all Newcombe's brilliance, they knew he was running on fumes after his late-season heroics, so they had to be wondering how safe that lead really was.

But for six innings, it was perfectly safe. Maglie was pitching brilliantly, but Newcombe was even better, and the Dodgers still had their 1-0 lead entering the bottom of the seventh. Finally, then, the Dodgers broke through, as Thomson hit a sacrifice fly to tie game. With the Giants still threatening, Newcombe got the rookie Mays to ground into a double play to end the threat.

Having been sitting on a 1-0 lead for so long, the Dodgers responded immediately to the newly tied game, backing up their ace with a three-run 8th inning. So it was 4-1 entering the bottom of the ninth, and then the questions came up again.

What if Newcombe hadn't been over used down the stretch? Then he wouldn't have told Robinson entering the ninth that he was dog tired. Of course, manager Chuck Dressen left in him anyway. Then Dark led off the ninth with a single. Mueller - who wouldn't have had an open spot in the lineup if Thomson hadn't been able to move so seamlessly into third base - followed with another single. After a pop out, Whitey Lockman singled home Dark, with Mueller going to third and spraining his ankle.

While the trainers were tending to Mueller, Dressen was calling down to the bullpen. Branka and Carl Erskine were both warmed up, but Erskine's final warm-up pitch, a curveball, bounced, so Dressen went with Branca. What if that ball hadn't bounced? What would Erskine have done in this clutch situation? As it was, it was a matchup between Branca and Thomson. And remember, Thomson had homered off Branca in Game 1 of the playoff.

Another question to be asked is what if Dressen had ordered Thomson walked to face the rookie Mays? In retrospect, it seems crazy that it was even a possibility that you would intentionally walk somebody ahead of Willie Mays, but it wasn't then. Thomson was the Giants' best hitter, and Mays was a rookie who had at times struggled with the transition to Major League play. But the old adage went that you don't put the winning run on base, and Thomson represented the winning run, so it was him that was facing Branca. But if it had been Mays? Hoo boy. He is already considered one of the top three players in baseball history. If it had been Mays getting the pennant-clinching hit in this game, maybe that would have been the clinching argument that pushed Mays ahead of Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb atop baseball's list of immortals.

But it was Thomson. And as the 1-0 pitch sunk into the left-field bleachers, he started leaping as he ran around the bases. The Dodgers slunk off the field - all of them except Robinson, that is, as he stayed to make sure Thomson touched every base.

Thomson leaped onto home plate and got engulfed by his teammates, eventually being carried off the field. It was his moment, and his alone. All the things that had happened that summer, all the little plays or decisions that could have turned out differently had led to this. If anything had happened differently between August 12 and October 3, maybe we wouldn't remember Bobby Thomson at all. Maybe he'd just be a footnote in baseball history. As it is, he'll always be remembered as the author of the Shot Heard 'Round the World, the most famous home run in the greatest game in baseball history.

It's surprising how rarely it's mentioned that the Giants lost the subsequent World Series to the Yankees. It's like it doesn't matter, that the ultimate goal was simply the National League pennant. Maybe in this instance it was.

Mays, who missed his chance at immortality by one spot in the batting order, spent the next two seasons in the military, returning for the 1954 season. That year, he led the Giants to another World Series appearance, and he took advantage of his second chance at immortality that year, making The Catch to help jump-start a four-game sweep.

Thomson was with the Braves by 1954, a season in which instead of making history, he became a footnote to history. When Thomson broke his leg in spring training of 1954, it forced the Braves to call up a young outfield prospect by the name of Henry Aaron.

As for the Dodgers, the 1951 season became simply the most painful of their failures to win the World Series. They were even better in 1952 and 1953, but they couldn't get past the Yankees in the World Series. It took until 1955 for them to finally erase the demons of 1951 and win the World Series

The Rundown
What am I doing? Go here to find out. The list:

1. N.Y. Giants 5, Brooklyn 4 (1951 National League playoff)
2. Minnesota 6, Detroit 5 (2009 AL Central tiebreaker)
3. Seattle 6, N.Y. Yankees 5 (1995 ALDS)
4. Colorado 9, San Diego 8 (2007 NL Wild Card tiebreaker)
5. N.Y. Yankees 5, Boston 4 (1978 AL East tiebreaker)
6. San Francisco 6, Los Angeles 4 (1962 National League playoff)
7. Chicago 1, Minnesota 0 (2008 AL Central tiebreaker)
8. N.Y. Yankees 5, Boston 3 (1949 American League)
9. Arizona 2, St. Louis 1 (2001 NLDS)
10. Chicago 4, New York 2 (1908 National League makeup game)
11. Boston 12, Cleveland 8 (1999 ALDS)
12. Boston 5, Minnesota 3 (1967 American League)
13. Minnesota 5, Oakland 4 (2002 ALDS)
14. Boston 4, Oakland 3 (2003 ALDS)
15. Cleveland 4, N.Y. Yankees 3 (1997 ALDS)
16. L.A. Angels 5, N.Y. Yankees 3 (2005 ALDS)
17. Texas 5, Tampa Bay 1 (2010 ALDS)
18. San Francisco 3, Atlanta 1 (2002 NLDS)
19. N.Y. Yankees 5, Oakland 3 (2001 ALDS)
20. Seattle 3, Cleveland 1 (2001 ALDS)
21. Chicago 5, San Francisco 3 (1998 NL Wild Card tiebreaker)
22. N.Y. Yankees 7, Oakland 5 (2000 ALDS)
23. Los Angeles 4, Houston 0 (1981 NL West Division Series)
24. Montreal 3, Philadelphia 0 (1981 NL East Division Series)
25. N.Y. Yankees 7, Milwaukee 3 (1981 AL East Division Series)
26. Seattle 9, California 1 (1995 AL West tiebreaker)
27. Chicago 5, Atlanta 1 (2003 NLDS)
28. Houston 12, Atlanta 3 (2004 NLDS)
29. N.Y. Mets 5, Cincinnati 0 (1999 NL Wild Card tiebreaker)
30. Cleveland 8, Boston 3 (1948 American League tiebreaker)
31. Houston 7, Los Angeles 1 (1980 NL West tiebreaker)

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